Egypt: Roots of the Revolution

(Video via The Unrepentant Marxist)

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In the above interview, Mohammed Ezzeldin mentions the murder by police of Khaled Said, a young Alexandrian, in June 2010 (and Egyptian police brutality in general) as one of the catalysts that have sparked the current revolt. For more details of Said’s murder, read The Arabist. Writing in The Faster Times right after Said’s murder, Max Strasser drew the bigger picture:

When Egyptian police burst into an Internet café in the coastal city of Alexandria, grabbed 28-year-old Khaled Said and then beat him to death, it’s most likely that neither the cops, nor Said, nor the bewildered witnesses were thinking about the United States government. But as international human rights organizations and thousands of Egyptians voice their condemnation of Said’s murder, it is worth considering the role that the US plays in the ongoing human rights abuses in Egypt and what the long-term implications of US policy might be.

Some of the details around Khaled Mohammed Said’s murder on June 6 remain murky. The initial reports stated that police came into an Internet café where he was using the computer and asked the patrons for their IDs. According to initial reports in local newspapers, Said refused to show his documents, which apparently offended the police sufficiently to cause them to beat him right there. Said was then taken to a police station where he was further beaten and then dumped, either unconscious or dead, on the sidewalk before he was picked up by an ambulance. When his body was recovered, his face was barely recognizable.

Egypt’s state apparatus has rallied to defend the police and keep the story quiet. In the days following Said’s murder, as anger mounted and the news-including some very graphic photos-spread throughout Egypt via blogs, Twitter and Facebook, state-run newspapers refused to cover the story.

The police department in Alexandria claimed that Said was either a drug addict or drug dealer, who died after swallowing narcotics as he tried to evade arrest. That this explanation contradicts the photos of Said’s bloody and broken face does not seem to be a matter of concern. More recently, some activists are saying that Said was in the Internet café uploading a video of corrupt police officers distributing dividing cash and drugs after a drug raid.

Regardless of whether Said was a drug addict or a daring citizen journalist, the fact remains that he was killed at the hands of police, without, needless to say, the benefit of a lawyer or a trial. This most recent murder fits in with a long pattern of torture, police abuse and state violence-a pattern that alienates Egyptians from their government and encourages instability in the country.

In 2007, police beat and sodomized a bus driver in he apparently resisted arrest. Later that year, police in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura beat a 13-year-old boy to death for stealing teabags. The same week that Said was killed, a 59 year old kiosk owner died in a Cairo police station under mysterious circumstances. These are just a couple of the most high profile incidents in recent years. Torture and arbitrary arrests are routine in Egypt.

This kind of behavior from authorities often falls under the umbrella of Egypt’s Emergency Law, which has been continuously in place since Hosni Mubarak took over the presidency in 1981. The Emergency Law, among other things, gives security forces sweeping powers of arrest and prolonged detention without trial. Egyptian newspapers reported that when the police first stormed the Internet café they cited the Emergency Law as they requested everyone’s documents.

Last month the Egyptian government renewed the Emergency Law for another two years. Some provisions were added stipulating that it would only be employed in cases related to drug trafficking and terrorism, though how the government will define these two things remains unclear. That Said has been repeatedly accused of being a drug dealer as the state attempts to defend its thugs gives us an idea of what it means.

The state violence that rules in Egypt serves one purpose and it is not combating terrorism or stopping the use of drugs. It maintains the power of the (increasingly) unpopular government. Citizens live in a state of fear that prevents them from demanding their basic rights. The government made this point clear earlier this week when, with a characteristic lack of irony, police violently broke up a protest against police brutality.

So what does this have to do with the US government? The United States is Egypt’s biggest backer. For the Washington, Mubarak’s 29-year-long authoritarian rule is a pillar of regional “stability.” Mubarak is the US’s “moderate” ally in the Middle East, whether or not defending the brutal murder of a innocent civilians seems like a moderate thing to do.

Washington relies on Mubarak’s government to broker reconciliation talks between the embattled Palestinian factions, and uses the head of the national intelligence agency to conduct shuttle diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians. Egypt is also seen as a counterweight against the growing influence of Iran and served as a crucial ally in George W. Bush’s War on Terror, a popular site for the extraordinary rendition of terror suspects. As former CIA agent Robert Baer said of the rendition program, “If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt.”

In exchange for performing these vital services and maintaining a pro-Washington government, Egypt receives approximately $1.5 billion in US aid money every year, making it the second largest recipient after its neighbor to the north Israel. But it’s not just money that Egypt gets in exchange for its cooperation with the US agenda in the Middle East, Mubarak’s government gets cover from the Washington on its human rights abuses.

When Egypt renewed the Emergency Law in May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement calling the extension “regrettable.” Clinton also said, “The United States understands the challenges that terrorism poses to free societies and we believe that effective counterterrorism measures can be based on legal principles that protect the rights of all citizens.” Since then there have been no further statements on the matter.

On June 14, the State Department issued a similarly feeble statement about Said’s murder, saying, “The United States is concerned” about the issue and “We welcome the Government’s announcement of a full investigation…” This appears to be the Obama Administration’s standard procedure for human rights violations in the Middle East: issue a mild statement that placates the human rights community while keeping serious pressure off of important allies. (See the response to Israel’s deadly raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla as a perfect example.)

Subsidizing a government that grabs young men from Internet cafes in broad daylight and viciously beats them to death, is not only an immoral foreign policy, it is also a dangerous one. The US government believes it needs allies in a region where America is deeply unpopular and extremism poses a serious problem, but propping up a repressive regime like Mubarak’s only helps to create the kind of angry, disillusioned youth likely to head down the path of terrorism. When these youth see the US’s complicity, it is easy to imagine where their anger can be directed.

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Filed under activism, film and video, international affairs, interviews, political repression, protests, student movements, trade unions

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